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A clueless immigrant’s 5 expat highlights for the year

I am not doing well with the passing of the years: they are over at an alarming rate. That we are already coming to the end of 2012 fills me with anxiety and dread. So perhaps I am not the best person to be in charge of one of those prerequisite “best-of-the-year” lists that fill up space this time of year. Nonetheless I have revisited my 2012 posts on The Displaced Nation to come up with my personal expat highlights for the year. Do join me on my existential journey.

1. “Travel for excitement, not enlightenment”

We started 2012 with a look at travel and moving abroad as a search for spiritual enlightenment. While I may possibly in the minority among this blog’s readers in finding the Elizabeth Gilbert idea of travel patronising, irritating, and misplaced, I do think travel is important. It (when done properly) broadens the mind; it can also be the most exciting thing you can do in your life. But — let’s be clear — in of itself buying a Virgin Airways ticket does not nourish your soul. That can be done much closer to home.

Now most of us can’t be as amazing as Pico Iyer — that’s just the burden we have to carry through our lives. We can’t just move to rural Japan and fetishize solitude. We will still spend our evenings in the grocery store, our weekends in the mall, they will still be those 2.4 children and those bloody traffic jams — as David Byrne sang, “same as it ever was.”

What I am going to do try and do in 2012 (and yes even though it’s mid-January I still feel it is early enough to mention resolutions in a post) is to take advantage of technology to find some solitude. I’m not going to posture by lighting an incense stick as if the path to personal enlightenment lies in sniffing in something called Egyptian Musk. What I am going to do is take advantage of the quiet moments that my everyday life provides by sitting and concentrating at a task and deriving satisfaction from that. It may be by learning programming, a foreign language, or taking advantage of the sheer, vast number of books that are now available for free on Google books. In this well-known brand of coffee shop while Tony Bennett plays to me and the tattooed man and the policeman and the baristas return to talking about the smaller one’s mother-in-law, I have on my iPad access to a library of books greater than the Bodleian — reason enough not to throw the iPad across the room when I’m annoyed by Iyer.

2. What to wear for an Independence Day party

Being British I always find Independence Day just a little bit awkward. Choosing appropriate clothing is always something of a dilemma.

Finding the Target employee that looked the most patriotic — the telltale signs are a sensible haircut, good posture, and a strong jaw line — I asked where I might find the most patriotic T-shirts in store. Leading me to a selection of T-shirts featuring the stars and stripes, it was difficult for me to contain my disappointment with this somewhat anemic selection.

“Hmmm, do you have anything more patriotic?” I asked.

The patriotic youth seemed a little confused, a look that made him seem increasingly un-American.

“I was,” I said, “looking for something with a little more pizzazz. Something more OTT. I was kinda hoping you’d have one where Jesus is cradling the Liberty Bell while a bald eagle looks down approvingly?”

3. London Olympics

In 2012, I was swept up by the Olympics far more than I anticipated. What I did not enjoy, however, was the poor coverage I had to put up with by NBC which revealed their own awkward world view.

The Games have made me homesick. My usual cynicism is no match for the enthusiasm of my London friends, all of whom seem to be attending events (if Facebook is anything to go by) while I sit watching it in one of the dullest towns in California. The opening ceremony elicited in me a mixture of pride and embarrassment — and as such, perfectly encapsulated for me what it is to be British. The ceremony also irritated Rush Limbaugh — so clearly job well done on Danny Boyle‘s part there.

4. Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

The release of a new documentary film about the French con man, Frédéric Bourdin, led to my favorite discussion of the year: what sort of expat are you, an imposter or a chameleon?

I know that I find myself occupying roles I had previously not thought I would before. Sometimes I am the imposter. I play a role that isn’t me. In my case, it may be exaggerating national characteristics and language that I feel people expect of me, but that I would never use back home. At other times, I find myself trying to be the chameleon. Trying to scrub away my otherness so that no attention is drawn to me because I sound different, or behave differently.

5. Donkeys and elephants: The US Presidential election

Here in the US, 2012 was marked by the presidential election. As a resident alien, a domestic election is an interesting thing as you have one foot in and one foot out.

It’s a strange feeling waking up on the morning of an election in the country that you live, and not voting. Equally, it’s a strange feeling posting your ballot in an election 6,000 miles away as I did in the last British election in 2010.

What are some of your expat highlights of the year? If you have a blog, feel free to leave links to a favorite blog post you may have written.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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Repatriation is just relocation — with benefits

Today’s guest blogger, Anastasia Ashman, has been pioneering a new concept of global citizenship. Through various publications, both online and in print, and now through her GlobalNiche initiative, she expresses the belief that common interests and experiences can connect us more than geography, nationality, or even blood. But what happens when someone like Ashman returns to the place where she was born and grew up? Here is the story of her most recent repatriation.

I recently relocated to San Francisco. Three decades away from my hometown area, I keep chanting: “Don’t expect it to be the same as it was in the past.”

Since leaving the Bay area, I’ve lived in 30 homes in 4 countries, journeying first to the East Coast (Philadelphia Mainline) for college, then to Europe (Rome) for further studies, back to the East Coast (New York) and the West Coast (Los Angeles) for work, over to Asia (Penang, Kuala Lumpur) for my first overseas adventure, back to the USA (New York), and finally, to Istanbul for my second expat experience.

My daily mantra has become: “Don’t expect to be the same person you once were.”

With each move, my mental map has faded, supplanted by new information that will get me through the day.

Back in San Francisco, I repeat several times a day: “This place may be where I’m from, but it’s a foreign country now. Don’t expect to know how it all works.”

What a difference technology makes (?!)

Today my work travels, just as it did when I arrived in Istanbul with a Hemingway-esque survival plan to be on an extended writing retreat and emerge at the border with my passport and a masterpiece.

I knew from my previous expat stint in Malaysia that I needed to tap into a local international scene. But I spent months in limbo without local friends, nor being able to share my transition with the people I’d left.

This time is different. Now I’m connected to expat-repat friends around the world on the social Web with whom I can discuss my re-entry. I’ve built Twitter lists of San Francisco people  (1, 2, 3) to tap into local activities and lifestyles, in addition to blasts-from-my-Berkeley-past.

I’ve already drawn some sweet time-travely perks. To get a new driver’s license I only needed to answer half the test questions since I was already in the system from teenhood.

After Turkey’s Byzantine bureaucracy and panicky queue-jumpers, I appreciated the ease of making my license renewal appointment online even if the ruby-taloned woman at the Department of Motor Vehicles Information desk handed me additional forms saying: “Oh, you got instructions on the Internet? That’s a different company.”

One of the reasons my husband and I moved here is to more closely align with a future we want to live in, so it’s cool to see the online-offline reality around us in San Francisco’s tech-forward atmosphere.

It doesn’t always translate to an improved situation though. Just as we are searching for staff to speak to in person at a ghost-town Crate & Barrel, a suggestion card propped on a table told us to text the manager “how things are going.”

So, theoretically I can reach the manager — I just can’t see him or her.

So strange…yet so familiar

It took a couple of months to identify the name for what passes as service now in the economically-depressed United States: anti-service. Customer service has been taken over by scripts read by zombies.

When I bought a sticky roller at The Container Store, the clerk asked me, “Oh, do you have a dog?”

“No, a cat,” I countered into the void.

He passed me the bag, his small-talk quota filled. He wasn’t required by his employer to conclude the pseudo-interaction with human-quality processing, like, “Ah, gotta love ’em.”

What I didn’t plan for are the psychedelic flashbacks to my childhood. I may have moved on, but this place seems set in amber. The burrito joints are still playing reggae (not even the latest sounds of Kingston or Birmingham) and the pizza places, ’70s classic rock stations (Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” anyone?). The street artists are still peddling necklaces of your name twisted in wire. Residents are still dressed like they’re going for a hike in the hills with North Face fleece jackets and a backpack.

A bid for minimalism

The plan is also to be somewhat scrappy after years of increasing bloat. My Turkish husband and I got rid of most of our stuff in Turkey in a bid for minimalism. We camped out on the floor of our apartment in San Francisco until we could procure some furniture.

If it was a literal repositioning, it was also a conscious one — for a different set of circumstances. We’d expanded in Istanbul with a standard 3-bedroom apartment and “depot” storage room, and affordable house cleaners to maintain the high level of cleanliness of a typical Turkish household. In California, I intended to shoulder more of the housework.

I was soon reminded of relocation’s surprises that can make a person clumsy and graceless. I should have kept my own years-in-the-making sewing kit since I can’t find a quality replacement for it in an American market flooded with cheap options from China — and now have to take a jacket to the tailor to sew on a button, something I used to be able to do myself.

When the lower-quality dishwasher door in our San Francisco rental drops open and bangs my kneecap, I recall the too-thin cling wrap and tinfoil that I ripped to shreds in Istanbul, or the garden hose in Penang that kinked and unkinked without warning, spraying me in the face.

New purchases

“We’re getting too old for this,” my husband and I keep telling each other as we shift on our polyester-filled floor pillows that looked a lot bigger and less junky on Amazon. (We were abusing one-day delivery after years of not buying anything online due to difficulties with customs in Istanbul. Cat litter can be delivered tomorrow! Pepper grinder! Then I read about the harsh conditions faced by fulfillment workers in Amazon’s warehouses and cut back.)

One of our first purchases Stateside was a television. Not that we’re going to start watching local TV, but we did flick through some satellite channels. It’s something I like to do upon relocating: watch TV and soak up the local culture like a cyborg.

Since I last lived in the US, reality shows like COPS — where the camera would follow policemen on their seedy beats — have gone deeper into the underbelly of life, and now there are reality shows about incarceration.

The Discovery Channel has also gone straight to the swamp. That’s where I caught a moonshiner reality show featuring shirtless (and toothless) men in overalls called “Popcorn” and “Grandad.”

It’s an America I am not quite keen to get to know.

But I can take these reverse culture shocks lightly because my repatriation is part of a continuum. It’s not a hiatus from anything nor a return home. I’m not missing anything elsewhere, I haven’t given up anything for good. Being here now is simply the latest displacement. Today is a bridge to where I’m headed.

ANASTASIA ASHMAN is the cultural writer/producer behind the Expat Harem book and discussion site.  The Californian has been on a global rollercoaster: fired in Hollywood, abandoned on a snake-infested island off Borneo, married in an Ottoman palace, interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today show. She brings it all home in the “Web 3.0 & Life 3.0” educational media startup, empowering creative, adventurous, self-improving people to tap into a wider world of personal and pro opportunity no matter where you are. Get your copy of the Global You manifesto here.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: Anastasia Ashman (2012), her World Champions ring, and a view of the bridge to where she’s headed right now.

A classic TCK dilemma: Which of my 3 heritages counts for the Olympics?

We welcome back Third Culture Kid Tiffany Lake-Haeuser to the Displaced Nation. (She last joined us during fashion month.) Born in the United States to German parents, Tiffany returned “home” to Frankfurt when she was six. But then at age 13, she moved with her family to Abu Dhabi, UAE. Now back in Frankfurt, this 16-year-old divides her time between this city and Paris, where her father currently resides. So which team(s) does Tiffany support in the Olympics? That’s the million-euro (or is it dollar?) question.

I was never really very interested in sports. This year, during the Olympics, that changed. You still won’t find me glued to the television to see all the events, but I’m definitely more interested than in the past.

Then of course, there is the somewhat confusing decision of which country to cheer for. Do I support my heritage and the country I now live in, Germany? Or do I support the country I was born in and often associate with, the USA? Well for me it was easy to decide. You see, I am extremely competitive and enjoy cheering for the country that wins, which for the most part leads to me cheering for the USA.

I watched the pre-Olympic trials for the American gymnastics team when I was in the United States visiting childhood friends earlier this summer. I was gobsmacked — not only by the amazing talent of the athletes, but also by the enthusiasm shown by the spectators.  I think that’s when I caught the Olympic bug. Suddenly I was eager to see the team compete for gold in London.

German apathy

But when I got back in Germany, there was barely any sign that the Games were fast approaching. Maybe I was just in the wrong environment, but no one was even talking about it. Even when the Games started, it felt like no one cared. The most excitement I observed was a small promotional program by a pharmacy(!). Unless I was on some social networking site, I barely ever exchanged views with anyone about what was happening at the Olympics.

While waiting for the Games to start, I did some research and found out that since the modern Olympic Games began, the USA has always been in the top three countries when it came to the number of medals won.

This history made me even more inclined to support my other “home” country. I love cheering for countries that are doing well. I love being a fan.

Go USA! Hmmm…unless it’s soccer?

As anyone who read my March interview with The Displaced Nation knows, I’m something of a fashionista. I love the idea of showing some pride for the US team by wearing red, white and blue. It may seem petty, but half the fun of watching the Olympics for a non-athlete like me is getting dressed up and painting your face in your team’s colors.

That’s something I picked up from Germany, in fact. Germans get truly pumped up for one thing: soccer. It’s our pride and joy. During the European Cup or the World Cup, Germany is transformed into a black, red and golden country. While in the USA people have flags hanging by their doors all year long, in Germany that happens only during these major soccer events.

One test of which side I was on in the Olympics came when a friend tried to bug me by saying that Germany was being beaten by his country in some sport. To be honest, I didn’t mind that much. All I could think about how well Gabby Douglas was doing in gymnastics.

Does this mean I am not proud of my German heritage? It definitely doesn’t; by the next soccer game you will see me losing my voice for cheering on Germany.

So it really isn’t that straightforward or clear. You never truly stop cheering for a country that means something to you. All you can really hope for is that the two countries’ teams never play against each other…

Go women athletes!

On a different note, I was excited to hear about how every country sent women to the Olympics this year. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but I do think gender equality is important, and that a country that is sending its women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time is taking a big step. I hope that gender equality in sports can become the new standard. Some day, perhaps, it will be considered so normal it won’t even make the headlines.

Having lived for three years in Abu Dhabi, I was particularly interested in the news about Saudi Arabian women participating in the Games. I know from experience how easy it is for us Westerners to look at Arab women wearing the hijab and think they are less liberated than we are. When I saw the Saudi women walking behind the men during the London opening ceremony, I was not surprised so much as humbled. Not everyone sees equality in the same way as we Westerners do.

Likewise, I didn’t think it was fair for the International Olympic Committee to consider banning the judo wrestler Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani from dressing according to the traditions by which she was raised.  (In the end, they compromised on a cap for her to wear instead of the hijab.) To some degree, I admire Saudi Arabia for insisting upon preserving its cultural identity and traditions in face of the influence of Westernization.

By the time the Games end on Sunday, I think my favorite part will not be about having supported a particular country. The best part, in my opinion, has been seeing the people who rise to the occasion and do phenomenally well. It sounds cheesy, but you can see in their eyes the joy and relief that all their hard work and training has finally paid off — in the moment that counted, they were able to be the best they could be.

* * *

Readers, any thoughts on or reactions to Tiffany Lake-Haeuser’s dilemma? Please put them in the comments. You can also follow what she is up to on her blog, Girl on the Run.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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To live the Olympic Ideal, I need to stop watching the Olympics

So the Olympics continue and with it my continuing — and ugly — obsession with the American broadcasting network NBC is laid bare.

Now if I were being fair — and I so rarely am — I would admit that NBC does have a nifty, free Olympics app that is a pretty decent way of keeping track (terrible pun, sorry) of what is happening, but all the goodwill that engenders in me evaporates as soon as I turn on the TV for my nightly fix.

Having already vented in a previous post, I should clearly give this issue a rest, but in all honesty the snide, masochistic side of my personality adores being able to shout each night as the bland features of Bob Costas (a face you forget even while looking at it) illuminate TV screens across the USA.

Six hours a night I’ve been yelping, tutting, and admonishing the TV. My long-suffering wife deals stoically with my piggish behaviour. It starts with my local NBC affiliate, who are staging all their Olympic coverage from the nearby Thunder Valley Casino — because as everyone knows, if you want to see Olympic specimens you head to the lobby of a casino. Once in a while, they cut to Deirdre Fitzpatrick, who each day provides pointless, meandering ten-minute videos of herself wandering round London — Rick Steves is positively Bruce Chatwin-like in comparison. A choice example saw our Deirdre (make-up immaculate, of course, but in that female US newcaster’s way, whereby its effect is disturbingly artificial and it’s impossible to gauge what her true age is) by a footpath on the South Bank. “Everywhere you go, there’s an impromptu performance,” she says as the camera zooms in on a man playing an acoustic guitar. Deirdre, it’s called busking.

But then comes the main event as we cut to Bland Bob Costas. You may even get to see a little bit of sport, but not too much as Mary Carillo is then wheeled out for 15 minutes each night to give a patronising look into some aspect of British life that would even make VisitBritain cringe. She is not quite at Deirdre levels of annoyance, but then poor Deirdre’s day often seems to involve finding an American tourist to talk to, or the most embarrassing old British codger that she can find to interview. Mary, however, has access to various echelons of British society to paint her twee picture of my homeland. I was particularly irate when only the last lap of the 10,000m race was shown — we then moved on to Mary fronting a 15-minute video about bagpipes in Glasgow. I understand that the race had been shown live earlier in the day, but I don’t think anyone was tuning in that night for a piece about the modern renaissance of bagpipes. If this has any place — and that is a big if — it is on The Today Show (which, too, has camped out in London for the duration of the games), not on the actual evening highlights.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin in establishing the modern Olympics probably did not envisage how mass media throughout the 20th century would transform the games, and certainly did not foresee how social media is transforming them again. In the interests of his Olympic Ideal, it seems utterly wrong that I am spending my time moaning into the void-like Internet, rather than celebrating the likes of Usain Bolt, Oscar Pistorius, and Jessica Ennis. I will take a deep breath, count to ten, and smile when Bob beams that ineffectual smile of his when coverage starts. Or perhaps I’ll try and figure out how to get the Canadian coverage of the games.

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THE DISPLACED Q: As an expat, do you ever get confused about which team to support at the Olympics?

The long-anticipated Games of the XXX Olympiad, also known as London 2012, are now in full swing. Some members of the Displaced Nation team are looking a tad bleary eyed after staying up late several nights in a row to watch their favorite events (gymnastics, anyone? or how about some synchronized diving?).

Maybe we’re getting grouchy from the lack of sleep, but we’re beginning to engage in some surprisingly heated debates — surprising given how much we looked forward to the arrival of the Games.

Or perhaps it’s not surprising given that most, if not all, of us residents have confused, hybrid nationalities…

In any event, here’s my displaced question for YOU: What if an athlete or team from your native land ends up competing with one from your adopted country?

Now pay heed, because this could be important.

I studied in Cardiff, Wales, where this sort of thing can be a matter of life and death. I’m English y’see, and while Wales may be part of the United Kingdom, it’s also its own country. For which I can hardly blame it…

Historically, Wales and England have not been the best of friends — in fact in one English city, it’s still legal to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow at certain times of the year.

For some reason it’s one law they just keep forgetting to appeal…

To say the English have treated the Welsh unfairly is…well, fair. We were utter bastards to them back in the day, as we were to pretty much every other civilization with which we came into contact. That’s why they all rose up and threw us out at various points in time.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson — that infamous stiff upper lip isn’t the only national trait we’re known for. Yes, we Brits are an arrogant lot — legendarily so — and never more so than in the arena of international sport.

Luckily we’re not very good at most of it, or we’d have been involved in even more wars.

The art of living dangerously in a country of sore losers

But the Welsh, alas, aren’t much better; on the contrary, they have a horrible habit of being even worse than we are. Rugby is supposed to be their game, yet we English keep beating them at it. And if you’re the only English bloke in the immediate vicinity shortly after such a humiliating defeat occurs…well, the Welsh aren’t known for having a magnanimous, forgiving nature. They are known, rather, as barbarian tribes so unruly that even the Romans couldn’t subjugate them.

I never once tried to subjugate anyone, but in my three years at university I was on the short end of a serious subjugation every time the Welsh lost to England. Which was depressingly often.

So, herein lies the dilemma: You’re an expat. Your birth-home team is playing your adopted-home team. Do you:
a) Cheer for the local team to curry popularity — even if you’re dying inside with every goal scored by the locals?
b) Cheer for your native country’s team to show character, and honesty, and that you’re not afraid – even if, inside, you are actually terrified at what the locals may do to you afterwards?
c) Find a nice, comfy hole to lie in for a week or so until all the excitement dies down? (Note: Not for heroes. I’ve been known to adopt this tactic.)

Both a) and b) are seriously risky strategies. When questioned by a drunk and excitable Welshman, approximately five feet tall and about the same girth — along with ten of his veteran drinking buddies — it was always something of a lottery. Declare for my homeland, and pray I was in better shape athletically (or at least less drunk) than any of them; or declare for Wales, and risk getting beaten up anyway because they thought I was taking the mickey.

My answer varied (like my patriotism) with the number of pints I’d drunk.

(Note to self: Singing “God Save The Queen” loudly in response is almost never a good idea, even if you are drunk enough to hardly feel a thing. And especially when you haven’t even bothered to learn the words…)

The art of not having an opinion

Thankfully, I have since come up with my patented Ultimate Solution™ to this problem, after years of suffering one way or the other — or sometimes both ways simultaneously — at the hands of my ancestral foes.

I don’t cheer for my home team. Either of them. Because to be honest, I don’t give two figs about a sport unless I’m actually playing it, and then if I win, at least I’m dressed in the right gear for running away.

Let’s break this strategy down a little more.

Taking this approach means you can celebrate every goal. If “your” team loses, you’re not too heavily committed, having cheered equally for both sides in their best moments.

Indeed, no one will be 100% sure which side you’re on, and as you’ve shared at least a few cheers with their side, they’re bound to feel more kindly disposed towards you than if you’d been screaming obscenities at their favorite player.

The second, and even more important part of this strategy is:


As Leo “The Lip” Durocher, manager of several Major League baseball teams, once said (in 1946):

Nice guys finish last.

It doesn’t matter who wins in the end. No, really, it doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the saying “It’s only a game!” — because it is.

And while some people honestly admire a winner, and are happy to let them enjoy their well-earned celebration, in my experience most people have a bitter spot in their hearts for those who beat them — or their team. And it’s not a healthy place to be for anyone — basically, they can’t stand someone who beats them.

But everyone loves a loser.

If your birth-home team loses, be the humble eater-of-pie. Congratulate your new-found compatriots and maybe let slip — in an unguarded moment — that you knew they would win anyway as you’d had a horrible feeling that they were actually a much better team.

And if your adopted-home team loses — join them in commiserating. Because let’s face it, people from your home country are a bunch of so and sos — except you, of course. Which is why you’re here, and not there… “They” never play fairly. One day, hopefully soon, the local team will show ’em who’s boss. And until then, well, you might as well drown your sorrows with the rest of the losers…

Either way it goes, you get points for being a good sportsman. That’s what I call winning by default.

* * *

Okay, readers, now it’s your turn to weigh in on this vexed question. Do you ever feel confused about who you should be rooting for at the Olympics, or is this a moment when blind nationalism sets in, and it’s your home athlete/team or nothing?

Tell me what you think!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another in our “expat moment” series…

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Image: MorgueFile

RANDOM NOMAD: Brian MacDuckston, American Expat in Tokyo & Expert Ramen Slurper

Place of birth: San Francisco, California USA
Passport: USA
Overseas history: Japan (Saitama, Hiroshima, Tokyo): 2006 – present.
Occupation: Food consultant and freelance English teacher (available for high school classes, after-school programs, private lessons, children’s events…)
Cyberspace coordinates: Ramen Adventures (blog); @macduckston (Twitter handle); and Ramen Adventures (Facebook).

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
Around 2004 I took a colloquial Mandarin Chinese class, hoping to learn a bit to help with the massive amounts of Kung Fu movies I was into at the time — I soon learned that Cantonese, not Mandarin, is used in these flicks. One of my classmates was going to China for a year to teach English. I did some Internet searching and decided I really wanted to check this out. I was stressed with my computer job, and a year abroad seemed like a good idea. Opportunities abound in China, Korea, and Japan. Japan just seemed like a good choice to me.

You’ve now lived in Japan for more than five years. Tell me about the moment when you felt the most displaced.
My first day of work in Saitama, I somehow managed to get on an empty train that had reached its last stop. A minute later and I was in the depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand. I was late to my very first English lesson. I wanted to quit right away. Things got better, obviously.

Is there any particular moment or moments that stand out as your least displaced?
Whenever I’m on the road here in Japan. I ride a motorcycle — very few foreigners do that. Something about being able to navigate across mountain ranges on poorly marked roads fills me with a great sense of accomplishment.

Hmmm…are you sure it’s safe? And now you may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
A curiosity? I am actually quite a minimalist, collecting only photos. My Nikon camera is technically a Japanese thing. I guess I would choose that. Or perhaps I should consider bringing a few of my Japanese cooking knives. Beautifully crafted and razor sharp, they are amazing things.

Ah, cooking! I’m glad you mentioned that. You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Ramen of course! Let’s go ahead and serve it after the drinks. After many drinks. Ramen is one of the best hangover prevention foods. All that fat and all those carbs do wonders for the next morning.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Umai is a great food word in Japanese. Most people first learn oishii to mean delicious, but umai is a bit stronger, a bit more cool. It’s mostly a guy word, though. I hope that’s okay with the female occupants of the Displaced Nation?

Perfectly okay! This summer, thanks to the London Olympics, all of us Displaced Nation residents, whether male or female, have become obsessed with displays of machismo and strength. In fact, this may be a good time to bring up your hobby of eating ramen in as many Tokyo venues as possible. How did you get launched in such a curious culinary sport — and become so accomplished that you and your blog were featured in the Travel section of the New York Times?
After living in Hiroshima for a bit, I knew that I needed to live in the big city.  So I finished my contract, signed up for unemployment insurance, and moved to Tokyo. Suddenly I found myself with a massive amount of time on my hands — and not a lot of money in my pockets. I decided to wait in the ridiculously long ramen shop line that I had seen many times across the street from a massive bookstore in Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s multiple city centers.

I was shocked how good it was. Completely worth the hour wait outside in the cold. A bit of research later, and I had a list of the 30 best shops in Tokyo…a nice place to start.

Thirty shops sounds rather daunting, particularly if each one involves standing in line for hours! What keeps you going, and do you still like ramen after the upteempth bowl of it?
What keeps me going? A job that doesn’t pay much! In fact, it’s the kind of random fun that comes with this obsession that keeps me going. When I can somehow influence someone to have the best bowl of ramen they have ever had, I feel like it is worth it.

Would you say that you’ve now graduated from amateur to pro?
Becoming a pro in such a niche corner of the food world is tough, but I suppose the few guidebook articles or magazine pieces I have worked on would put me up there.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Brian MacDuckston into The Displaced Nation once he’s finished slurping up his latest bowl of noodles? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Brian — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Displaced Q, about nationalism and the Olympics.

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img: Brian at a ramen-ya in Tokyo, pursuing his favorite “sport.”

Bob Costas as the ugly American: NBC and the Olympics

Yesterday’s post was on the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Here in the US, I was able to watch it (hours after the rest of the world) on NBC.

I hadn’t planned to write a post about the Olympics and the opening ceremony. In fact, I was vehemently against the idea when it was suggested to me. However, as the days have gone on, I’ve found my attitude softening.

They are two reasons for this.

Firstly, the Games have made me homesick. My usual cynicism is no match for the enthusiasm of my London friends, all of whom seem to be attending events (if Facebook is anything to go by) while I sit watching it in one of the dullest towns in California. The opening ceremony elicited in me a mixture of pride and embarrassment — and as such, perfectly encapsulated for me what it is to be British. The ceremony also irritated Rush Limbaugh — so clearly job well done on Danny Boyle‘s part there.

The second reason I’ve decided to backtrack on my decision to blog on the Games is I am enduring the NBC coverage. Those of you spending too much of your time on Twitter have probably already noticed that the channel has been receiving a fair amount of criticism for its decision to time-delay the opening ceremony, its cutting of the “memorial” wall tribute from the ceremony as they didn’t feel it relevant to a US audience (yeah, because NBC knows what’s relevant to a US audience), its role in the suspension of journalist Guy Adams from Twitter, and the really awful library-esque studio they’ve set up for Bob Costas. Each night Bob reminds me of the narrator from The Rocky Horror Show. Oh God, do you think he’s got pantyhose under that desk?

This is the second Summer games that I have watched in the US, so I am not surprised that NBC in its prime time slots edits the games more like a reality show, such as American Idol, than an actual sporting event. They are filmed inserts galore highlighting particular favored US Olympians giving us a look into their struggles and achievements, their family dynamics, and ideally some terrible (juicy) tragedy that has befallen them.

What has really irritated me, however, has been NBC’s commentary. I understand that Trevor Nelson had some role in the BBC commentary during the opening ceremony, so in the interest of fairness I imagine that was pretty dire, too; but it was disappointing to see Matt Lauer, Bob Costas and Meredith Vieira prove so adept in their roles as ugly Americans.

On behalf of those blessed without NBC, I re-watched the opening ceremony and parade of nations this morning. I give you the following comments from said broadcast:

On London mayor Boris Johnson

By the way if you think he’s been so busy, he couldn’t get a haircut — this is his haircut.

Actually, fair enough.

On British English

A billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — will watch at home on what they call “the telly” around here.

On the reveal of the giant baby

I don’t know whether that’s cute or creepy. — Matt Lauer

Coincidentally, I had the same thought on seeing Meredith Vieira.

On Tim Berners-Lee

If you haven’t heard of him — we haven’t either.

Yes, Meredith, let’s revel in our ignorance.

On various countries

Australia was famously settled as a penal colony in the late-1700s.

Belgium, as you know, is homeland to IOC President, Dr Jacques Rogge, who competed as a sailor for them three times in ’68, ’72 and ’76.

We’re meant to know that, but not about Tim Berners-Lee?

Central African Republic is made up of more than 80 ethnic groups and they each have their own language, which I’m guessing makes subtitles at the movies a major undertaking.

Jesus Christ, it’s like watching the games with your unfunny uncle.

And that leads me perfectly to Croatia: their flag-bearer Venio Losert is the goalkeeper of the handball team. This is a sport that just doesn’t have a great foothold in the United States, but if you’re looking for a way to get a medal in the Olympics it would be a good sport to take up.

Yup, the US doesn’t play it, so handball must be a piece of piss.

On Kim Jong-Il and golf

Bob Costas: Matt, as a golfer you’d know that North Korea’s greatest athletic achievement belonged to the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who, according to his official biography, carded 11 holes in one. Not over a lifetime, but over the first he ever played. I’m guessing the ones off the windmill and the clown’s nose were especially impressive.”

Matt Lauer: Sure, you joke. You’re not going to vacation there.

Bob Costas: Unlikely.

Feel free to contribute to my Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to send Bob Costas to North Korea for his vacation.

On badminton coverage

Bob Costas: If you’re looking for badminton coverage, and who isn’t, you’ll find it on our cable networks and streaming live on throughout the games.

Matt Lauer: Let’s not make light, this is not your backyard, picnic variety badminton. This is tough stuff.

Bob Costas: No, that shuttle cock moves at “daunting” speeds!

Like those competing in handball, the badminton players should be thankful Bob Costas isn’t playing their easy-peasy sport. Bob can also bitch-slap Chuck Norris.

On various countries

Djibouti — now, there’s a few countries whose names simply make you smile. Djibouti would win the gold medal in that category. Maybe Cameroon taking the silver.

Don’t leave us in suspense, Matt. Who comes in bronze?

Germany is next. Long-time Olympic power, the medal count has slipped in recent years, so they’ve now returned to East German-style Olympic schools to better train their young athletes — but they’re quick to point out their talking about the positive aspects of such a program.

Thank God, for a moment I thought they’d brought the Stasi back.

Madagascar — a location associated with a few huge animated movies.

The Maldives are the lowest country on earth. A couple of medals here might boost them up a little bit.

A few medals will sort out the rising sea levels!

Next is Pakistan. While world leaders keep a wary eye on this country, of much less importance Pakistani athletes to keep an eye are likely to be found in field hockey.

Seamless, Bob. Absolutely seamless.

Winston Churchill once described the African nation of Uganda and its lush landscape as the pearl of Africa. Of course, Churchill never met Idi Amin.

On the speed of the Parade of Nations

Bob Costas: I don’t know if you can sense this, folks, but we’re having to edit through our notes. We have never seen a parade of nations move at a clip like this.

Matt Lauer: Just means we get to the United States and Great Britain a little earlier.

Bob: Tsch, we have to sit through all these other countries.

On athletes smiling

As all these Olympians enter, smiling and quickly, I think part of this is in deference to the 86-year-old Queen who made — along with James Bond — one of the great entrances in Olympic history earlier.

I mean, what other reasons are there for an athlete to be smiling at making the Olympics?

On London pubs and football

You’ll see signs in the windows of London pubs sometimes saying no football jerseys allowed because the mere sight of the wrong jersey can ignite a brawl. But nobody is in a brawling mood tonight.

That ending is worthy of Alan Partridge. Also, as someone who has drank in far more London pubs than Bob Costas and Matt Lauer, I have never seen such a sign.


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The opening ceremony of the London Olympics — from an expat who witnessed Beijing’s spectacle firsthand

As regular readers will know, The Displaced Nation has some special connections to Britain. We therefore held our collective breath when the Olympic ceremony opened on Friday evening in London. How would the Brits measure up to the Chinese extravaganza of four years ago? Britain is after all a declining power — which is not exactly true of China! Today we turn to guest poster Shannon Young, an expat in Hong Kong who has written a book about her firsthand experience of attending the Beijing Games, for a verdict.

Four years ago, 2,008 drummers opened the Summer Olympics in Beijing with a thunderous rhythm heard ’round the world. Spectacular feats of coordination, drama and energy followed, wowing the world with the precision and ambition of the production.

Heralded as the greatest live performance in history, Beijing’s opening ceremony was a tough act to follow.

It was a tough act for me to follow as well. I’d been in the stands as the rumble of the drums swelled through Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. But as the opening ceremony of the London Games was about to begin, I found myself at the kitchen table of my grandparents’ home in Oregon (I am back in the United States for a visit) watching a live stream on my computer.

Oh we can be heroes…just for one day

A landscape that looked rather like a shire appeared, complete with sheep and idyllically dressed country folk. The agrarian scene was quickly replaced with the frenetic energy of the Industrial Revolution, but the contrast was obvious: London was not trying to “beat” China.

Quirky, funny and nuanced. Those three words characterize the July 27th, 2012, ceremony. It displayed the heart and humor for which the British are famous — especially in the form of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), whose rendition of “Chariots of Fire” completely stole the show.

London brought the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics back down to a human level. It was no Beijing, but it was the kind of show that speaks to people.

Famous for such films as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle infused the London ceremony with a cinematic flare.

Like many other spectators around the world, I loved the short film in which James Bond picked up Queen Elizabeth in a helicopter, which they (or their stunt doubles) proceeded to jump out of, for their “entrance” into the stadium.

There were other nods to cinematography throughout the production, including to Boyle’s own films, mixing the mediums of live performance and cinema. The costumes were intricate when viewed through a zoomed-in camera, but I had to wonder how much of this was for the camera and not the live audience. The spectators in the stands may not have been able to enjoy the details.

Only rock ‘n roll (but I like it)

There was a rock-and-roll feeling to the show. The dance numbers were more like big parties than expertly timed performances. They were full of mini-storylines and surprises.

The segment that began with a nightmare of the villains of children’s literature ended with the raucous defeat of a gigantic Lord Voldemort by none other than Mary Poppins.

The soundtrack was fun and familiar, liberally paying homage to Britain’s many contributions to culture.

A high-octane production like the Olympics opening ceremony needs to have quiet moments, too.

In Beijing there were eerie performances, such as a single dancer gliding across a glowing scroll.

In London, the quiet moments were solemn. There was a moving dance performance dedicated to the victims of the July 7th bombings on London transport, and a moment of silence for those who fell in the two world wars.

New takes on old classics

The Parade of Nations was faster than usual, bringing 204 teams into the stadium in record time.

The production culminated in the lighting of the torch, which was done in a particularly elegant fashion. David Beckham delivered the torch to retired British rower Sir Stephen Redgrave in a neon speedboat on the Thames.

In a touching act, Britain’s venerated Olympian then delivered the torch to seven promising young athletes, who lit the torch together. The torch itself was composed of many copper petals which rose together on long stems to create the Olympic cauldron.

London’s opening ceremony drew many laughs and perhaps a few tears. There weren’t as many breathtaking moments as in Beijing, but the show was like the British: quirky, personable, and utterly self-assured.

Shannon Young is an American writer currently living in Hong Kong. She is the author of The Olympics Beat: A Spectator’s Memoir of Beijing. She writes a blog called A Kindle in Hong Kong and tweets @ShannonYoungHK.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We will be giving away several copies of Shannon Young’s mini travel memoir of the Beijing Olympics this month. The first will go to a commenter on this post — please share your favorite moment from London’s opening ceremony, or a memorable moment from a previous Olympics.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Expat Moment with Anthony Windram!

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Images: A London Olympics sign courtesy e-costa on Flickr; author Shannon Young and two of her photos from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Trying — but failing — to keep up with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Olympic e-book author and karaoke star

**Announcing a giveaway of one of Wendy Nelson Tokunaga’s Kindle e-books. open to DISPLACED DISPATCH SUBSCRIBERS  & ANYONE WHO COMMENTS. And guess what? You get to take your pick! Woo hoo!!**

During this summer’s London Olympics there will be endless displays of speed grace, strength, masochism, endurance, pain, and perseverance.

Just the the thought of it makes me feel exhausted and a little bit nauseous.

But I don’t necessarily have to look toward the Orbit (I refer to the “eyeful tower” that looms over London’s Olympic Stadium) to feel that way. Instead I can direct my weary gaze towards the Golden Gate Bridge, near to where the once-displaced Wendy Nelson Tokunaga resides.

Tokunaga was a special guest at The Displaced Nation before as one of our 12 Nomads of Christmas. We have invited her back today to showcase what it means to be an “Olympian author.” She has just completed the marathon-like feat of publishing three e-books — two novels and one work of nonfiction — in a period of 12 months.

Has she tired you out yet?

I ask because that’s not the whole story. A talented writer, Tokunaga is what the Japanese call a talento: she can sing jazz as well as j-pop and enka (a type of sentimental ballad). Put it this way: you do not want to compete with her in a karaoke contest!

If you don’t believe me, listen to her singing this enka she composed for one of her novels — you would never know that Tokunaga is a native-born Californian who’d spent time in Japan!

Just one of the many reasons why you’ll never keep up with her…or if you dare to try, you’ll be huffing and puffing, just as I am. (Why oh why did I agree to sing a few bars of “My Way” with her?)

* * *

[Catching my breath…] Thank you, Wendy, for agreeing to this interview with The Displaced Nation. While I rest for a bit, can you tell me a little more about yourself — where you were born and how you ended up living in Japan?
I was born in San Francisco and have lived in the Bay Area all my life except for when I lived in Tokyo during the early 1980s. I had been studying Japanese language and culture at San Francisco State University when I won a prize in a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. It allowed me to perform my song at Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo. After that I moved to Japan to pursue music, teach English and do narration work.

While I’m still catching my breath — let’s hope I don’t have a heart attack here — why don’t you tell us about all your books? I understand you’ve published eight of them in the past 12 years, of which three of them came out in the past 12 months?
I self-published my first novel, No Kidding, in 2000 with iUniverse. Then I wrote two books for elementary-school students with Kid Haven Press: Famous People: Christine Aguilera (2003) and Wonders of the World: Niagra Falls (2004). Next came two novels that featured Japan, both of which were published by St. Martin’s Griffin: Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation. And then I self-published three Kindle e-books within the past 12 months: Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, in 2011; Falling Uphill and His Wife and Daughters, both in 2012.

I suppose you’re working on another book right now?
Yes, a mystery/thriller.

Crossing publishing platforms…

Turning to your three recent books: what made you decide to join the Kindle e-book world?
Falling Uphill was a “trunk novel” I wrote in 2004 that never got published. With the popularity of e-books I decided to revise it a bit and put it out instead of having it gather dust on my hard drive. My agent at the time came close to selling His Wife and Daughters to a major publisher in 2011, but in the end things didn’t work out. I still wanted to bring the book out, so making it available as an e-book seemed like a great idea. I’d gotten a few bites from publishers regarding Marriage in Translation, which was based on a series of blog interviews I’d done of Western women married to Japanese men. But dealing with a publisher would mean the book would take at least a year to come out and would probably need to be longer. I just wanted to get it out as soon as I could to take advantage of the momentum of the blog. Coincidentally, when I was in the finishing stages, the disastrous earthquake and tsunami occurred in Japan. I brought out the book shortly after and for a time gave 50 percent of the proceeds to Japan relief.

Do you think you can reach a different audience through self-publishing?
What’s exciting about e-books is that I can reach an audience! For various reasons, these books wouldn’t have seen the light of day, so I’m happy to continually find readers for them. And, yes, I think I’m reaching a wider geographical audience. And another bonus is that in the e-book world, unlike in the traditional publishing world, the pub date is irrelevant — people can continue to discover my books and I can promote them as summer reads, fall reads or whatever. And e-books don’t ever go “out of print.” I couldn’t be happier with this platform, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still appreciate traditional publishing and don’t rule out traditional publishing in the future.

Crossing genres…

You got your MFA in creative writing. You also teach and consult on creative writing. What was it like trying your hand at a nonfiction book Marriage in Translation?
These days, non-fiction written in the manner of creative non-fiction and/or narrative non-fiction has lots in common with novels. I think it can be easier for fiction writers to tackle non-fiction, but there might be more challenges for the strictly non-fiction writer to undertake writing fiction.

Why is it so challenging for nonfiction writers to switch over to fiction?
Some — not all — non-fiction writers find it difficult to “make things up” and use their imagination after being so ingrained at using “just the facts.” And, for journalists, I think it can be a challenge to structure a novel that doesn’t reveal everything at once and fight the tendency to go about verifying each point.

Crossing cultures…

Turning to Japan and its influence on your writing. For a while there, Japan was your lodestar. Both Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation had strong Japanese themes, as does Marriage in Translation. But in your two latest novels your protagonists are all Americans. I’ve read His Wife and Daughters — and enjoyed it very much. There was a scene set in Japan — involving one of the daughters, Phoebe — but otherwise it’s about an American politician who has an affair that causes him to lose his job. I haven’t read Falling Uphill — does it have any Japanese references?
Falling Uphill doesn’t have any Japanese references, at least that I can recall! And in His Wife and Daughters, I thought that for the particular purpose of depicting a certain time in Phoebe’s life that setting it in Tokyo made sense because of the bar hostess culture there. Otherwise, Japan really wouldn’t have played any part in that novel.

Are you moving away from Japan, or will it always be something you write about?
There have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve said all I can say about Japan and need to move on, though it will always be a part of me. I’ve enjoyed writing about Japan and Japanese culture and I even had a Japan-themed short story published in the recent Tomo anthology published by Stone Bridge Press, but I do enjoy writing about topics other than Japan. Yet I am careful to “never say never” about most things.

That said, I think Japanese might enjoy His Wife and Daughters. They have plenty of sex scandals, the most recent one involving the political kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. But in that case, the wife has spoken out — and is trying to poison his career. What was the inspiration behind the book —  do you like politics?
I don’t see His Wife and Daughters as a particularly political book. I was more attracted to the theme of exploring why some women stand by their men in these situations and withstand the humiliation, as well as the fascinating dynamics of a dysfunctional family affected by serial adultery and public scandal.

Crossing art forms…

And now I’ve just got to ask you about your musical career. Are you still pursuing music alongside all this writing?
I’ve been singing and playing music for longer than I’ve been writing. And music is what originally got me to Japan so it’s very important to me. But I don’t have as much time to devote to music right now. My husband and I occasionally play together at home for fun (he plays keyboards), but we haven’t done any gigs for several years. And I wish I had time to keep up with J-pop and enka and go to karaoke! I do manage to catch some music shows via the TV-Japan satellite service, but that’s about it.

Didn’t you and your husband collaborate on a theme song for your book Love in Translation?
Yes we did. That was our last major musical project.

Do you listen to music when you’re writing?
Not usually, but I often have Pandora playing quietly downstairs from my office (the cat likes it!) on a variety of eclectic stations: piano jazz, trip hop, ambient, etc.

Last but not least, I’d like to quiz you about your reading and writing habits:
Last truly great book you read: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Favorite literary genre: Books that are well written, fast paced and full of surprises.
Reading habits on a plane: I read on my iPad.
The one book you’d require the president to read: He’s so well read that I think he’s way ahead of me.
Favorite books as a child: I especially liked the Edward Eager Magic Series (Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Seven Day Magic, etc.) as well as The Borrowers series by Mary Norton and The Summer Birds by Penelope Farmer.
Favorite heroine: I always liked books about girls who had special magical powers or mysterious backgrounds.
The writer, dead or alive, you’d most like to meet: I’m constantly networking with fellow writers and have gotten the opportunity to meet with many that I admire, but I suppose it would be quite fascinating to talk with Joan Didion, a writer who definitely excels at both fiction and non-fiction.
Your reading habits: I’m a pretty fast reader. I sometimes take notes and I am mainly reading electronically now. I do find myself constantly analyzing the books I read for craft and structure so it’s sometimes hard to get lost in a good book like I used to be able to back in those Edward Eager days.
Your favorite of your own books: Always the latest one: His Wife and Daughters.
The book of yours you’d most like to see as a film: Any of them!!!
The book you plan to read next: The Expats, by Chris Pavone.

Say, would you do a review for The Displaced Nation on what you think of Chris Pavone’s book?
I’m happy to do a review, but I can’t promise any time soon. I’m in the midst of some very big projects right now. So if there’s not a firm deadline, then I can say yes. 🙂

(See what I mean about how you just can’t keep up with her?) Okay, one final question before I let you go. Since you’ve been so prolific of late, I wonder if you have any advice to impart to other writers who struggle to wrap up their books?
I wish I knew the secret! I’m struggling with my current book and don’t know when the heck I’ll finish it. Writing takes discipline and there’s no magic formula, I’m afraid. And some books come quicker than others.

* * *

Readers, any more questions for Wendy? Please put them in the comments. To reiterate, we are doing a giveaway of one of Wendy’s Kindle e-books to Displaced Dispatch subscribers and to ANYONE WHO COMMENTS! As I can assure you from my own experience, you WANT TO WIN one of these books — they are THE PERFECT SUMMER READS!!!

STAY TUNED for some more fiction tomorrow, with another episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga throwing her considerable energy into yet another round of karaoke…

THE DISPLACED Q: In your world travels, which Olympics athletic skill would come in most handy?

As I travel around, I often wonder what it would be like to be an Olympic-quality athlete. No, really! I do. I just LOVE the idea of pushing my body to extremes, of being all I can be.

I find it curious that the Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals in 1948 — the last time the Summer Olympics were held in London — commented afterwards:

All I’ve done is run fast. I don’t see why people should make much fuss about that.

A humble sentiment, to be sure — but, hey, there’s something to be said for displaying your prowess at times.

The way I see it, the pursuit of excellence — in anything, from sprinting to eating a banana to waiting for a bus — should always be applauded. Why be average at anything when you can be great at it?

And if I haven’t managed it yet, that’s not for want of trying! Except in one area. Like many travelers and expats I know I find traveling rather thirsty work — and have developed the skill of lifting a pint, or a large gin and tonic, with the best of them!

But with the London Games soon upon us, I keep imagining all the Olympic-champion-level skills that would come in handy for your average traveler, if only we could enhance our bodies in certain ways.

For example:


As a powerful cyclist, you could transport yourself the length of a continent without ever having to squeeze onto a chicken-infested bus.


That would help out when it came to backpacking – no need to ban your girlfriend from taking a hairdryer anymore! Just man up and shoulder the extra weight.


Did you know sailing was an Olympic sport? (It was actually known as yachting for its first 100 years…)

Top-notch sailing skills would not only make international crossings a pleasure, but you might also be able to pick up a bit of work here and there — maybe even end up crewing a mega-yacht for the rich and famous! (I know someone who is doing this job at the moment. He reports it’s quite enjoyable…)


For the life of me, I can’t figure out how diving or gymnastics could ever be useful. They’re just totally random skills that take a lifetime of effort to acquire and perfect, and are good for exactly two weeks in every four years, until you turn twenty and suddenly become too old. Well, I guess if you’re really lucky, you could launch a clothing label or a perfume brand to finance your travels.


Taekwondo and karate are both Olympic sports and both fiercely competitive (well, fierce when compared to, say, figure skating!).

Imagine the healthy glow of confidence you’d project strutting around the globe as one of the world’s top martial artists! Downtown in a strange city in the dead of night, you could nip out for a taco safe in the knowledge that any low-life waiting to mug you was about to get an education.

In all seriousness, though, I honestly believe that some self-defense training is essential for the modern traveler. Not so much because you might get a chance to use it, but just knowing some basic moves to defend yourself boosts your confidence a hundredfold. And people out to cause trouble can often tell this at a distance — just by watching the way you walk. They look for easy targets; if you don’t present one, you may never even know you were in danger.


This could be the all-time winner for us traveling types. Last in line for a ticket? Only one croissant left at the deli? Wrestle your way through!

Caught without enough money after living it up in a posh restaurant? Try skipping out. The maître d’ will never see it coming…

Of course, traveling with bottles and bottles of baby oil is going to present its own challenges — not least when customs wants to know exactly what it’s for. Then again…you could always show ’em!


Ah, the Olympic marathon — traditionally the last event of the athletics calendar, with a finish inside the Olympic stadium, often within hours of, or even incorporated into, the closing ceremonies.

I’ve always fancied myself as an endurance athlete, as a marathon runner — if I was ever in the right place long enough to train for it. That kind of endurance, the ability to not give up even when it becomes impossibly hard — that’s the Olympic-level skill I value the most.

Because, as I said, traveling can be hard. It can be grueling, unpleasant, dangerous and occasionally downright painful!

But as is so often the case in life, if you can just see past all that to the bigger picture — can take a step back from the hardship of the moment and find the strength and positivity to carry you through — you’ll be able to go the distance.

You’ll be the one still traveling when all the others give up and go home; the one who perseveres with the difficult language, makes new friends from scratch and/or manages to fully integrate into an unfamiliar culture.

And that’s where the real rewards come from, the traveler’s equivalent of winning gold: being able to appreciate what you’ve achieved in spite of all the obstacles that were placed in your way.

Because, no matter how competitive some of us world travelers are, the fact remains that travel is not a race. You are only really competing with yourself — trying to see how many life experiences you can assimilate and how far you can go towards achieving your dreams.

And more often than not in that quest, slow and steady is the way to go.

* * *

So what do YOU think? Which areas of athletic prowess would you prefer to master, and why? Any Olympic skill is fair game (hahaha). Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with Olympian author Wendy Nelson Tokunaga.

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